RTHK can’t work without freedom of speech, court told

The High Court was told on Monday that Hong Kong needs to be more tolerant of satirical shows in order to protect the city’s freedom of speech.

The argument was made at a judicial review hearing by the RTHK Programme Staff Union and the Journalists Association, who are seeking to overturn a ruling by the Communications Authority that an episode of RTHK’s Headliner programme had insulted the police.

The government broadcaster took the show off the air last year, after the authority issued a warning over an episode in which the host, who was dressed in police uniform, emerged from a rubbish bin and bragged about the force’s sufficient supply of personal protection equipment amid the pandemic.

Senior counsel Johannes Chan, who represented the applicants, told the court that the show might have been cynical and sarcastic, but it did not amount to an insult – or the host would have been standing before a dirty background like a landfill or some sewage.

He said it could also be interpreted that the officer in the bin was shielding from the coronavirus, similar to how a cartoon character from Sesame Street called Oscar lives in a rubbish bin like a recluse.

Chan said as different people had different interpretations of the show, the authority should have adopted a high degree of tolerance when handling complaints against it, especially when police officers, who had public authority, ought to be under close scrutiny.

He added that the lighthearted and humorous show, partially set in the Chinese imperial court, was “more like a movie” than a personal opinion programme – the classification adopted by the authority – and did not mean to allow for serious discussion of social issues.

Chan said the programme only intended to amuse its audience and air people’s grievances, and should not have been held to the same high standards of accuracy and impartiality as other programming, as no reasonable viewer would believe in everything that was said on the show.

He added that it would not be possible to produce any comical effect if the programme had to present balanced views and refrain from exaggerating or distorting certain things.

He also said RTHK had more than once invited the police to be on the show, but the force did not respond.

The lawyer stressed that if RTHK did not enjoy freedom of speech, the public broadcaster could not carry out its duty to facilitate the free exchange of ideas without fear or favour.

The hearing was to continue on Tuesday.